A month after one of Prince Edward Island's largest elementary schools was shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak, education officials are looking at ways they can improve should a similar shutdown happen again.
West Royalty Elementary in Charlottetown was forced to close just a few days into the the new school year when there was an outbreak of COVID-19 among students.
Norbert Carpenter, director of the Public Schools Branch, says the school board handled the early-September outbreak well, but has also identified a few areas that need to be improved.
"To have that outbreak at the beginning of the year was a real challenge," said Carpenter, who applauded the staff at West Royalty.
"It's very challenging to get a school up and running ... and the age group at West Royalty made it difficult as well. K-6 students trying to move to remote learning quickly, with all that information coming in, did make it difficult, but I do think we did as good as we could have done in the situation."
School outbreak declared over
In-person classes at West Royalty were cancelled for a week. Eighteen other schools in the Charlottetown area also closed for three days following the outbreak, but did not move to remote learning as West Royalty did.
P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Office says the outbreak at West Royalty was declared over on Oct. 10, 14 days after the last case linked to the outbreak was detected.
The review raised issues around how quickly schools collect information from parents, to ensure the school board can provide that information to the Chief Public Health Office for contact tracing.
The school board also faced a technology challenge.
The Department of Education replaced its long-standing Students Achieve software with a new program called PowerSchool, a program school administrations use to manage student information — including names, contact information, attendance and marks.
But Carpenter said the system is still not fully operational, which added to the challenge of managing the outbreak at West Royalty.
'Quickly contain the outbreak'
"The system was up and running but it's the user's comfort, I guess I would say, at the school level. So we had to deploy people on the PowerSchool team to come in and help generate the lists," Carpenter said.
The Chief Public Health Office commended the Public Schools Branch and the affected schools for responding quickly to its requests for student information, which it called "key to determining the scope of the outbreak and containing transmission."
In a statement it said "CPHO was able to quickly identify contacts and provide testing and isolation requirements, which allowed them to quickly contain the outbreak and stop onward transmission."
The Education Department also carried out a review of how the outbreak was handled. It also identified the timing of the outbreak as a challenge.
"Due to the timing of the exposure, after only three days of in-class learning, not all student information forms had been returned to the school. As a result there was a lag in students and/or parents receiving passwords and login information to the remote learning platforms. Teachers required those two days to ensure that students had the necessary technology and login materials for remote learning," the department said in a statement.
Teachers received additional help
The staggered return of students at West Royalty, based on their need to self-isolate, also created a challenge for teachers trying to juggle students both in person and remotely.
"We immediately reacted and adjusted policy to enable us to bring in additional resources for teachers," the department said. "Substitute teachers were brought in as needed to support students who were learning remotely, when their teacher was back to providing in-class learning for a portion of the class or vice versa."
Carpenter said the PSB's priority has to be safety, but they continue to look at how quickly it can roll out remote learning.
"There will always be a time period to get things up and running for remote learning," he said, adding that is especially true for elementary-aged students who usually need more help with technology.
"There will always be a delay and it's not the optimal form of learning but we learn every time we do it, so I think we will be better prepared. We just hope it's not at the first of the school year."